First Overall in Sight, Gold in Mind

With the World Junior Championship in Helsinki just 10 days away from puck drop, the most important weeks of the year for U20 national teams are just around the corner. Training camps are under way and the first cuts have been made already. defenceman and potential top three pick at the 2016 NHL-Draft, Jakob Chychrun, is among those who have been cut.

While the Finnish version of McEichel, Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine, try to win gold for the hosts, it is US-born Auston Matthews who will have all eyes on him during this tournament. There are only few doubts that Matthews will be the first overall selection next summer and scouts expect big things from the center in Helsinki.

Because Matthews is playing with the ZSC Lions of the Swiss National League, NHL-organizations do not get to see Matthews play as often as it would be the case for a number one front-runner playing in North America. The last first overall pick playing outside of North America was Alexander Ovechkin back in 2004. Since Ovechkin, the first pick always played for a North American team. Nevertheless, it doesn’t pass a single home game of the ZSC Lions where no scout is in the standings and scouts will still have seen enough of Matthews by the end of the season.

Gaining Confidence Under Crawford

Everyone who gets a glance at Matthews playing in one of the most competitive European leagues against men witnesses that this kid is special. Some experts might have been skeptical about his decision to play the pre-draft year in Europe but by now all critics have become silent. His 25 points in 22 games are the second best mark with the ZSC Lions and without missing a couple of weeks with an injury he would most probably lead the team in scoring, a top team in the National League A by the way. He also ranks fourth best in goals scored league wide.

Matthews returned from his injury in a strong fashio and picked up the pace quickly, without any signs of slowing down. One of the most impressive things about Matthews is his confidence with the puck. He is a calm puck carrier and is always looking to create something, a very active player. If you see him play it would be easy to forget that he just turned 18 this year.

However, once on the ice he is in the zone and plays with a lot of confidence. He likes to carry the puck and produce offence, is also forced by his coach Marc Crawford to play big minutes. He wants the puck all the time to make the difference in the game. Crawford is that much impressed of Matthews that he sends him out to the ice in key situations.

Defensive Improvement

An area where Matthews had room for improvement, and maybe still does, is his defensive play. He improved a lot in this aspect under Crawford. He backchecks and supports his defenders in the defensive zone and is aware of his opponents. He is starting to get a feeling for positioning himself perfectly in shooting lanes and starts to use his body to block shots, something he didn’t do earlier in the year, at the U18 Worlds for example. He will only get better defensively and can become an effective two-way forward.

It also seems to me that he improved his play in front of the net. He has a nose for the net and reads rebounds very well. He was more of a pass first guy in earlier games but turned into a dangerous scorer who starts to feel very comfortable around the net. His offensive instincts, puckhandling skills and accureate shot reminds me a lot at Yevgeni Malkin, although Matthews will become a better two-way player. His shot release and pass accuracy is already NHL-ready.

However, I’d like to see him use his body a bit more often, he has a long reach and could use this to his advantage in the own zone and when protecting the puck. He also needs to simplify his game as he tends to try too much sometimes or goes into a one-against-one situation when he should rather decide for another play.

While talking to several players in Matthews’ team, nearly everyone says that they are impressed with Matthews’ off the ice. They always describe him as a very earthed person, a young kid who constantly wants to become better in any aspect of the game and although he is aware of his talent, he never takes it for granted. It looks like Matthews is a role model not only on the ice but also off the ice and it seems likely that he could become a great leader at NHL-level one day, like his own role model, Jonathan Toews. 

Matthews bid farewell to Switzerland on Sunday with a goal and an assist and is ready for the next challenge. After winning gold at the U18 Worlds in April he is looking to do the same in Helsinki at U20 level. It will be a crucial tournament for Matthews to make another statement towards the first overall position next summer. Although scouts will have seen enough of Matthews by the time they need to make their final decision next summer, it is still important for him to make an impact against some of the best prospects in his age group and in front of entire scouting staffs of organizations.